Michigan (1-1 Big Ten, 4-1 overall) has its sights set on running the table.
The 17th-ranked Wolverines lost their first game of the season last week, and now they face the daunting challenge of bouncing back from disappointment. With the bye week already behind it, the Michigan football team hasn’t had much time to process its shocking loss to Michigan State.
But the Wolverines can’t afford to allow the setback to linger in their minds, and they have said as much throughout the week. Their goal is to win out, starting with Indiana on Saturday.
Here’s what to watch for when Michigan travels to Bloomington to take on the Hoosiers:
1. Can John O’Korn bounce back?
Though the Wolverines themselves said the fault for the unexpected defeat should be spread around evenly amongst the team, fifth-year senior quarterback John O’Korn did throw three interceptions on three consecutive possessions amid a raging monsoon.
While he doesn’t necessarily call the plays, he still has to execute them when called upon, which he readily admitted after the game last Saturday. He also has to be a beacon of leadership, as Michigan will need to lean on him against Indiana.
As has been clearly documented, O’Korn has faced his fair share of adversity both before and during his Wolverine career. Perhaps more so than many of his teammates, he should have an understanding of how to turn bumps in the road into breakthroughs.
The Wolverines will be counting on O’Korn to correct course, both for himself and for the team, in order to avoid another stumbling block against the Hoosiers — one that would surely become a sinkhole for their championship aspirations.
2. Will Ty Isaac be given another chance to start?
Fifth-year senior running back Ty Isaac became a sacrificial lamb of sorts in the wake of the Michigan State loss.
On Michigan’s second possession, the ball went to freshman receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones and then to sophomore running back Chris Evans on the ground. Following their strategy of spreading the ball around, the Wolverines put the ball in Isaac’s hands next. At the very end of his run, the ball was poked out of Isaac’s grasp. He didn’t see the field again for the rest of the half.
After breaking out as one of the best offensive performers on the team over the first three weeks, Isaac fell on hard times as soon as the Big Ten season began. Against both Purdue and Michigan State, the starting job went to junior running back Karan Higdon.
Indiana found success stopping the run against Penn State, but doesn’t boast a particularly strong rushing defense — the Hoosiers are ranked 67th nationally with an average of 152.4 yards allowed per game. Saturday could provide an opportunity for Isaac to reclaim his carries. That is, if Michigan puts the ball back in his hands.
3. How long can the defense hold onto its top spot?
In possibly one of the biggest surprises of the 2017 season, the Wolverines have the No. 1 defense in the nation despite losing all but one starter from last year.
Each opposing offense has offered a different look for the Wolverines to handle, and they have been able to neutralize them all. After installing the 3-3-5 scheme earlier this year, defensive coordinator Don Brown has his unit ready to face arguably any team in the country.
But even the defense’s best efforts may not be enough for Michigan if its offense can’t stop giving up possessions. The Wolverines’ offense has frequently put the defense in a hole with its sloppy play this year, which is a disconcerting trend, to say the least. When Michigan gave up its most points of the season — which was just 17 against Florida — the offense was to blame, as redshirt junior quarterback Wilton Speight threw back-to-back pick-sixes.
And then against the Spartans, the Wolverines turned the ball over a whopping five times, and it cost them dearly. The defense can only save Michigan so many times.
4. Will Michigan overlook Indiana with Penn State a week away?
It isn’t that Indiana is a bad team; it’s that the Nittany Lions are serious contenders for the College Football Playoff, which is where the Wolverines hoped they would still be at this point in the season.
But after Michigan’s loss to an unranked Michigan State, that dream seems all but crushed. The Hoosiers’ 0-2 conference record, meanwhile, is understandable given that their two opponents were then-No. 2 Ohio State and then-No. 4 Penn State.
The next feasible scenario that would allow the Wolverines to sneak back into playoff contention would be to pull off an upset victory over the Nittany Lions in State College — a highly daunting proposition before even mentioning that it is set to be a whiteout game in primetime. As is often the case, though, that attractive possibility can cause a team to look past a less formidable opponent.
Michigan spent the week claiming that all of its preseason goals are still in front of it. If that is truly the case, the Wolverines now have no margin of error.